When did you start giving mural tours?
Well, back in 1980, I guess.
How did they start? Were you just the closest art historian that happened to have all the information?
People ask me, Are you an expert in art? An art historian? I say, No, I’m just an art enthusiast. I like to look at art and talk about it. No, You’re an art historian. OK. [Laughs.] Now that you dubbed me an anthropologist, and that’s what I want to be from now on. Right, Margaret? [His white-haired wife, in the corner, nods.]
I’ve been fortunate. I’ve always met people that helped me, like John Weber. He was doing murals back in the early ‘70s. We’d be working on murals and somebody would ask, Where’s the other murals? Down the street. Take me over there. I was doing this so much that I said, I should start charging for this. And then a lady from—[he looks at Margaret, who supplies the answer: Virginia, from Glencoe School.]
She started bringing schools, and now we can’t stop them. We get colleges, first graders, they come all the time. Tomorrow I got four tours. All different ages, we’ve had even little kids.
I like them all. It’s just that the conversations got to be different. For an eighth grader, for a high schooler, it’s got to be a little different. ‘Cause the little bitty guy, he wants to look at color, he could care less about taking the spectator into consideration, the use of the wall’s architecture. But they do like to look at art.
Art is human behavior. Their mind says, Look, look at that. The creative part of the brain is always active. Like you, when you go to sleep, I was telling my wife, you’re a writer. You wake up a writer. You never stop being a writer, because your brain is suggesting things. Look at artists in bad situations, like in jail, concentration camps like and Kathe Kollwitz—where did she get the time or energy to do lithographs? I’m still amazed at those things. And some of the prison art. I mean, nothing holds them back. They’ll take playing cards, take the ink out of there, and use those colors for color. They’ll find ways to do art. The creative part of the brain is always there, boom, boom, boom, boom. It’s part of human nature.
There have been quite a few new murals since 1980.
I’m fortunate that I know most of the artists. Like Jeff Zimmerman just recently went to Michigan to do some murals there. He tells me about the ones there. I told him, One of your murals has got graffiti on it. Some idiot . . . He went, Does it look good or does it look bad? Is the graffiti done well? I said, No, not too good. He said, I’ll get back there and fix it as soon as I can.
These are great people and I’m very proud to know them. In Pilsen, you ask somebody, Who’s your favorite artist? He’s not going to say Matisse. He’s going to say, The guy that’s up there, he’s over there now painting. I just drank a beer with him yesterday. They’re part of the community. They’re a very important part of the community.
This just happened recently here in Pilsenin the last—I don’t know, twenty or thirty years, maybe. Because before, probably we just came here to eat and shoot pool.
When did that change?
I would say late ‘60s, ‘70s. Because people came from Mexico like Marcos Raya, and they taught them how to do murals. Because at one time we were doing collages, you know, big pictures—we didn’t know nothing about geometrics. But they showed us how, and we appreciate that, because, like I myself never went to art school or graduated from art school. I used to go to the Art Institute on Saturdays, and American Academy of Art, as a student at large just to watch them paint or do figure drawing. I couldn’t afford to be paying no whatever-it-was-they-were-paying then. I knew it was expensive. And then they came along: the best teachers in the world, the best painters in the world, were here in Pilsen.
Well I’ve taken up quite a bit of your time, do you have anything else you want to go on the official record?
Just underline—what’s that word I used?
With a capital—
I can put it in all caps, if you’d prefer.
Let that be the headline.